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The Past is a Foreign Country: (How) Do We Moderns Think Differently?

March 5, 2021 at 7:00 pm - 10:00 pm GMT

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In his debut Interintellect Salon, Cameron Harwick will examine the mindsets of our ancestors, and whether we have anything in common with them.

It’s easy enough to see how we live differently from our ancestors. You’re reading this on a device that connects you instantly to people all over the world. For that matter, you’re reading it, something that by itself sets you apart from most of your ancestors if you go back far enough.

What’s harder to see is how we think differently from our ancestors too. We may have a sense that people in premodern societies were simpler, perhaps more guileless, and we’re taught to regard them with either understanding condescension, or – increasingly – righteous judgment.

Even for the more sympathetic inquirer, it’s not that we lack a theory of how the premodern mind differs from the modern mind, or a story of where that difference came from. It’s that we have so many different theories and stories, most of which are more interested in contemporary social commentary. Scientific rationalism has something to do with it by all accounts, but where did that come from, and what exactly is it? Sociologists, economists, psychologists, philosophers, theologians, and more have all taken a crack at that question, coming up with as many different answers as there are books written about it.

In this salon, we’ll probe some of these different stories, and ask questions like:

  • What are the pitfalls of telling a story like this? Can it be told without veering into declinism or triumphalism?
  • Is it possible to answer the question from “within” a modern mindset? Can, or should, we try to “step outside”, and if so, how do we know when we’ve succeeded?
  • Can “stepping outside” like that change the way we relate to modern moral phenomena like authenticity or individualism? By stepping outside, do we give up the ability to evaluate any particular change as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy?
  • Given the staggering variety within both modern and premodern societies and minds, is it even possible to generalize this broadly?
  • Is there a straightforward path from premodern thinking to modern thinking, or might contact with modern Western thinking react in different and unfamiliar ways with recently modernizing or as-yet premodern peoples?

Good to read pre-salon:

Header image is Rembrandt’s Sacrifice of Isaac


March 5, 2021
7:00 pm - 10:00 pm GMT
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